Sewer spat: The devil is in the details
What will it take for the City of Milwaukie and Clackamas County to come to an agreement on sewer rates?
It'll certainly take many more meetings for local leaders to hammer out details in the rate dispute, but it could help negotiations if they put aside the various land-use issues involved with the Kellogg Wastewater Treatment Plant, located on Milwaukie's waterfront.
The heart of the dispute is that Milwaukie wants to lessen the impact of the sewage plant on its citizens by shrinking the site, allowing for more river access and building more park amenities. The county wants to plan for future expansion of the plant's capacity, ensuring that treatment will continue to serve Milwaukie and its quickly growing surrounding region during coming decades.
So, it's easier said than done to declare a truce about how the area around Kellogg is developed.
The county-owned Kellogg plant occupies a piece of prime real estate in downtown Milwaukie, and the land-use battles emerged during the height of disagreement. Leaders on either side are not likely to back down on their goals if it means that the years invested in negotiations have been fruitless. The good news is that both sides claim they're close to easing tensions for mutual benefit.
Mayor Jeremy Ferguson plans to ask the rest of City Council to dismiss the municipal code amendments that would make Kellogg a nonconforming use to levy fines against Clackamas County for running the plant in the city. The Milwaukie Planning Commission recommended the amendments in 2006, but the council has repeatedly postponed them.
'We're giving them (Clackamas County officials) mixed messages at this point,' Ferguson said. 'That really is going to be something that holds us back, and if we continue those code amendments, we're not going to get anywhere in the discussion.'
City Council is set to consider the code recommendations again at its regular meeting on June 21. In return, the city would like the county to minimize the impact of sewer-service trucks on a new entrance to Riverfront Park. Ferguson argues that sewer-rate negotiations will be more productive with the land-use issues out of the way.
County Commissioner Paul Savas also thinks the negotiations are going in the right direction and is looking forward to facilitating negotiations with the Oregon Department of Transportation to permit the city's proposal to close Jefferson and Washington street entrances off McLoughlin Boulevard and open up a new access to Kellogg Creek just north of the sewage treatment facility.
The planned public entrance to the park would have to be shared by trucks that service the wastewater facility, and the county was concerned that trucks wouldn't be able to travel northbound, which would require a left turn across four-lane McLoughlin. Neighbors of the sewage plant wanted ODOT to consider a traffic light at the intersection, but ODOT's Traffic Signal Policy only warrants a light to accesses averaging more than 75 vehicles per hour.
JoAnn Harrigel, the city's community services director, and councilors are hopeful that other traffic lights along McLoughlin could be timed to encourage openings in the traffic for trucks to cross without a protected signal. Milwaukie and the Johnson Creek Watershed Council received $190,000 from Metro to start construction this summer on the northern end of the park, but the southern end is on hold until sewer agreements are reached.
Since the county owns part of the space that Milwaukie envisions for an entrance, the county would need to apply or sign off on the city's application with ODOT. Twenty boat/trailer spaces and 10 car spaces would be possible with county approval, but the parking lot would be limited by at least 50 percent if the city had to build around the property.
'I'm kind of between a rock and a hard place,' Herrigel said. 'The beauty of the access south of the park allows for a big lawn, restroom, amphitheater and a plaza in the middle of park that could be a showpiece for the whole city. Without these features, we're left without community support and with the lightning-rod issue of parking.'
Savas cautions that he doesn't have complete control of ODOT's decision on the matter, but agrees that he has plenty of incentive to facilitate Milwaukie's goals if the whole rate dispute could turn on a single traffic light.
'It would be a tremendous positive step forward that would help this agreement,' Savas said.
ODOT officials state that the traffic-light topic is still under consideration, but there also hasn't been a formal, written stance on the subject from either side, according to the transportation agency's response to a public records request.
'ODOT is doing everything that it can to make sure that this moves forward as quickly and simply as possible,' said spokesperson Don Hamilton. 'We're keeping our eye on the safety of the driving public, but there are many considerations. Nothing is being excluded from this process.'
Since taking over the county's side of the negotiations, Savas has been sitting down with all five Milwaukie elected officials instead of the previous policy of just one or two city representatives.
'We ended up with more questions at the end of the session than answers, but it's good that we're moving forward,' Ferguson said. 'Right now we're trying to discover what the issues are, and Milwaukie has told the county that we're willing to let Kellogg exist because we recognize it as a regional asset.'
Ferguson and City Councilor Greg Chaimov agree that the discussion has improved since Savas took over negotiations from County Commissioner Ann Lininger and Former Clackamas Chair Lynn Peterson.
'Those (land-use proposals) are both steps in the right direction,' Chaimov said. 'Paul is going to be making his best effort to help our needs.'
'It's not that they weren't listening before, but there were a couple of a points that, without the technical knowledge base, were really tough to develop mutual understanding on,' Ferguson added. 'Paul has knowledge of things like outfall and effluent, so we're both using the same terms, and we're trying to get out of all of the weeds, have more high-level discussions and set the framework between the political bodies.'
Among topics being discussed is that new pipes don't have groundwater or stormwater infiltration while old cast-iron or clay pipes are butted together without seals so groundwater can soak up into the pipes. Whose pipes are newer and have fewer problems? Ferguson wants Milwaukie to set up better flow meters to help figure out whether the quality of city pipes could give a bargaining advantage.
There's also a difference between how Clackamas County bills its customers by equivalent dwelling unit, while the city uses a more complex rate calculated by the amount of water used in wintertime. The issues can get so complicated that leaders have focused on public support for land use and rates rather than the underlying problems.
'There's a delicate balance that the leaders have to keep in the talks and also in the battle for public perception, and as long as everything is seen as cooperative, this will continue to move forward,' Savas said.